Tis About Lit and Reading It

Monthly Archives: October 2011

“And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

–      Little Gidding, (No. 4 of Four Quartets), T S Eliot.

In August, I wrote a post about Hexwood describing my reaction to the book. Although I found it brilliant, my minuscule mind could not yet comprehend the enormity of Wynne Jones’s genius.

My professor (who shall not be named) is a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan so I suppose some of her insights may have rubbed off me and made me even more in awe of Wynne Jones’s awesomeness.

(Oh dear I have ended my first two paragraph with Wynne Jones’s awesomeness and have yet to substantiate it).

I’ve personally grown more interested in Wynne Jones again, having enjoyed her Chrestomanci series and Howl’s Moving Castle when I was a kid. Of course, being a child, I never drew any literary allusions to Eliot and the like. And I don’t suppose Wynne Jones even intended for her child readers to makes parallels. However, Wynne Jones has always written clever children’s stories that deserve its plaque of honour next to Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss.

This post shall be about the Bildungsroman in Hexwood. For those who are not familiar with the term, a Bildungsroman is “a novel of formation or development”. Several examples of the Bildungsroman would be the Harry Potter series, Bronte’s Jane Eyre and arguably, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now if you think that the word “Bildungsroman” is a difficult word that literary critics have conjured to bamboozle people then I suppose you are right (to an extent). But I rather like the word because it produces a nice ring in your mouth.

More than that, it also exemplifies many themes of fantasy novels. Fantasy novels are always about a good guy and a bad guy and how the good guy triumphs over the bad guy. The bad guy always has insurmountable odds of winning while the good guy flounders. And in the end, the good guy’s uh.. goodness conquers.

Anyways, the Eliot quote was never meant to bamboozle you either. If you think about the quote, we do end up at the end of our life, we do somehow end up where we start: the belly of the ground. We move from dust to dust (If you find that familiar, it’s because it’s a Biblical principle). It is also an uncanny experience. Being submerged in a familiar setting that seems unfamiliar to you. An interesting experiment you could try out would be entering your home through a visitor’s eyes. It will startle you more than you think.

Back to the novel.

Hexwood’s in media res beginning and irrational flow of the narrative does point towards an ‘epiphanic’ realization at the end of the novel. When the characters are submersed into the Wood’s magic, they only realise the extent of its real magic for the first time at the end of the novel. In many similar ways, the characters’ peregrination in the Wood is not based so much on vanquishing the corrupt forces of evil (Reigners), but rather, it focuses on the journey of apprenticeship that the characters go through.

The *peregrination in Hexwood closely resembles a game that consists of characters that transit from childhood to adulthood. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Jones uses a “role-playing game” (340) as a pretext for the novel. At the back of our novel, a single quote (ibid) from the novel is used to describe Hexwood. The structure of the quest in Hexwood is such that the Bannus’ real purpose in placing them in the Wood was “designed to end in [the Reigners’] death[s]” (364), it intended for these characters to go through the process of maturation again. And of growth.

For example, characters like Vierr(ann), Hume and Martin perceive their world as children. It is no coincidence that they are children at the beginning of the novel and only return to their adult form when they attain some level of understanding. This is significant because Jones draws our attention to their journey of apprenticeship.

Interestingly, the Reigners are depicted as adults, but Jones does not necessarily vilify adulthood. But rather, “adulthood” should be interpreted as a state of maturity (also physically translated at the end of the novel).

So what about Mordion? It can be argued that his perception of himself as a cold-blooded killer is important. As an adult, he does not quite view himself as a human. So Mordion’s journey to “humanity” needs to be considered on multiple levels. It’s always interesting to have someone like Wynne Jones subvert the typical conventions of fantasy. (ie. Someone who looks like a dark lord is not necessarily the dark lord).

Interestingly, Vierran, Hume, Mordion, Arthur and Fitela gaining the title of “Reigners” at the end of the novel also effectively corresponds with the victory at the end of a video game.

Magic is not the primary navigation tool for the characters’ peregrination in the Wood. While vanquishing the Reigners does remain as the purpose of the Bannus and the respective characters, Wynne Jones very cleverly minimizes the arbitrariness of magic and instead places a higher emphasis on magic’s manipulative power and the excessive nature of greed associated with it. (Yes, I will make a point about it). Thus, effectively presents the different conflicts that simmer beneath the surface of order.

Firstly, have you noticed that dinner/eating scenes in movies are always great for character analysis? Its significance is something I’ve only recently taken into serious analysis.

For example, if you look at the following scene:

Reigner Three took care to be sure that Vierran was indeed lying on her bed, watching something called Neighbours on the flat, flickering entertainment box, and then made her way to join Reigner One in a place called The Steak Bar. Here they were served what seemed to Reigner Three a singularly ill-tasting meal.

“This is a hovel,” she told Reigner One in their own language. “I warn you  – I am not pleased!”

“Neither am I.”

Reigner One moved his prawn cocktail in order to inspect with wonder the picture of astagecoach on the mat beneath. “You were not supposed to bring Vierran, my dear. There was a moment when I was quite angry. You see, as ithappened I had just dispatched all her family here along with the other disaffected House-heads. My aim was to isolate Vierran on Homeworld in order to breed her to the Servant when we bring him back.”

They paused while a rather obtrusive waiter took away their prawn glassesand brought them steak, chips and coleslaw.

“I apologise about Vierran,” said Reigner Three. “What is this white stuff that looks like cat sick and tastes like cardboard?”

“An aberration,” said Reigner One, “made of cabbage. Cabbage is a vegetable that came to Earth from Yurov along with the earliest convicts…”  (245-6)

It is also the voracious greed of Reigner One which causes his death and destruction. By assuming the form of a dragon, Reigner One imitates the act of devouring. And it is perhaps this bestial instinct that hastens the end of his long reign of tyranny. Of course, we learn of the Reigners’ tyranny at the beginning of the novel, Ann learns of Mordion’s purpose to take down the Reigners and his power struggle with them (48-51).

By juxtaposing the carnivorous tyranny of the Reigners against the (good) characters’ hunger (or quest) for truth and knowledge, communion becomes the site of harmony or discord. The former corresponding with the Bannus’ intentions.

At the same time, Wynne Jones is probably trying to link to the Arthurian Legend of the Round Table, a portrait of communion (376-377). Eating, after all, is a sign of communion. However, this communion can only be made whole by the congregation of sensible people (no power struggle), giving way to harmony.

Of course, using the castle as a fracturing of the site of communion was quite ingenious if you think about it. What does one think of when you think of “communion”? Of course, we think of the Christian communion but we also think of Arthur and his knights. Something a bit like this:

Yes? No? Okay, you can contest that bit with me in awhile.

Lastly, one should never forget that the Wood is also a spatial extension of their peregrination on Earth. The strength of the theta-space in the Wood is not founded on the exclusion of the Reigners, but instead is established (and eventually sustained) by the inclusion of people like Mordion, Vierran (Ann), Arthur, Martin (Fitela)  Merlin (Hume). In other words, its theta-space is composed of people from all walks of life (and time); the latter is crucial to our understanding because it adds to the depth and breadth of its development, it is significant of the pluralism of the future Homeworld.You know, it has just occurred to me that the “Homeworld” represents a kind of utopia and is also the place where the new Reigners return to after they go through this entire fiasco on Earth. That’s just my take though.

But if you consider the word “nature”, it naturally produces naturalness that is morally strengthening and virtuous, a far cry from what it was during the Reigners’ reign. Technology has always been perceived as anathema to nature (Yes? No?).

“I think what the Wood is trying to tell me is that it requires its own theta-space permanently, so that it can be the great Forest all the time, without having to rely on humans.” (376, underline mine).

In many ways, the Wood is rather like a Bildungs-tree. The Wood has its own character and personality and grows to understand what it means to use magic. The slightly unexpected request of the Wood at the end of the novel is interesting. From the beginning to the end of the novel, Wynne Jones emphasises the interactive nature of the Wood. While the Bannus has used it as a site of destroying the Reigners, the Wood is not as passive as that. Rather, it uses the layer of dead Reigners (figuratively) and decomposed dead land, quickened by magic, for it to grow into a “great Forest all the time, without having to rely on humans” (376). The name “Hume” (Merlin), I think, is not accidental. It is a double entendre for “human” but also for “humus”, the layer of rotting leaves and fallen blossoms and decomposing dead wood that provides nutrients for plants (and similarly, the Wood) to grow.

“There are two – no, three – sorts of paratypical field here. There’s the one the Bannus makes. there’s the one the wood makes, with its attendant nature magics, and there’s also pure mind magic, though I think the three interact quite often.” (106-107, underline mine).

Thus, the interaction between the Bannus, Wood and people foster a sort of harmony reinforced (and made possible) by the combined timeless  experiences (also not confined by space) they go through.

In the end, the transcendence of time and space seems to only bind the Wood’s power stronger. More importantly, however, is that Hexwood seems to align itself to the idea of “returning full circle”. For at the “end of all [their] exploring,/[they do indeed] arrive where [they]  started.” Jones does not purposely arrange the beginning and end of the novel such that they (more or less) “arrive where [they] started”. But rather, it is narratively (literally and metaphorically) whole, binding the entire novel together.

I’m not quite sure if I’ve quite convinced you of the power of this fantasy novel but does make subtle critical comments about the genre of fantasy altogether.

*I didn’t quite intend for the word “peregrination” to bamboozle you but I thought it more precise than “journey” or “development”. This definition is not particularly accurate but if I were to give you the OED definition, it would be “The course of a person’s life viewed originally as a temporary sojourn on earth and hence as a spiritual journey, esp. to heaven.”